A Comment on “Individualism and Collectivism”

Yahya Abdal-Aziz, a long-term Australian subscriber, offered the following response to my “Individualism and Collectivism.” A comment of my own follows:

If it is true that:

” liberal culture is more individualistic, with looser social bonds, more emphasis on self-expression, and a priority on individual identities over group identities…”

– then this may go some way toward explaining why liberals have more difficulty creating and maintaining cohesive groups that act liberally.

Each individual, acting alone, is their own leader. Does this imply that liberals all want to be leaders? No, rather that they tend to make poor followers! 😉

One may argue that the very notion of community requires us to surrender just enough of our individuality to accept leadership and direction from others when we perceive that doing so will be for the common good – even if, acting as individuals, we would not choose the same direction or actions.

The crux of the problem of making collective liberal action effective is this: we must recognise that acting as individuals and acting as a group are two different things. For a group to act effectively, its members must unite in supporting the direction chosen by the group and in carrying it out – even when that means acting in ways those members would not choose to act as individuals to achieve similar goals. If the liberal psyche has a weak point, it’s in being reluctant to hand control over action to somebody or something outside the individual.

For liberals to act effectively in groups, they, more than conservatives, need leaders they can trust to act in ways consonant with their beliefs, values and ethics. For many conservatives, simply being the leader is enough to command trust. But the trust of a liberal cannot be commanded; it must be earnt. Nobody can be more sceptical, or harder to convince, than the individualist liberal. And this is despite their tendency to be more optimistic than conservatives. Conservatives band together in groups to conquer their fears; liberals join loose confederations with other liberals to share their hopes.

Now, nothing I’ve written above addresses your concern, Wade, with how to reconcile a conflict between liberal and conservative tendencies, and the suggestion that these opposing tendencies contribute to polarisation. If anything, I’ve described these dynamics in terms of polar opposites! And that’s despite the fact that I don’t usually label people as either liberal or conservative. You asked: “Does this distinction make sense?” and I think, yes, it does make _some_ sense. But my normal thinking on this is pretty much like my thinking on, say, sexual orientation: that there’s a continuum, spanning all shades between the two extremes, and that people may fall at different places on that line. Even, at different times in their lives, and on different issues, they may fall at a point quite radically different than they do at others. In fact, there may even be a line for each important issue! Radical liberals usually die young. Conservatism tends to increase with age, except for a few free spirits. We all have some conservative tendencies and some liberal leanings, too; but the balance between them will vary depending on our background and on circumstances.

To reconcile these opposing tendencies in our society we need to first recognise that they exist in ourselves. In each of us, there are both fears of losing what we value (which Buddhists call “attachment”) and hopes of new achievements. We need to see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves. And show others, by example, how it’s possible to do so. Then we’ll begin to realise that we’re not so different after all.

Yahya, I tend to agree with your comments about continuums, though I’d like to look into research on the matter more thoroughly. And I appreciate your all-important conclusion. Indeed, “we’re not so different after all.”

But what challenges me most is your insight: “If the liberal psyche has a weak point, it’s in being reluctant to hand control over action to somebody or something outside the individual.” Unfortunately, that has often been the case with me.

Emerson said we should live as we want others to live, while acknowledging and accepting that they should do the same. Your point is similar. We can have confidence in our own opinions, while also trusting the “wisdom of crowds.” What effective choice do we have, after all?

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